Review: 1917 (2019)

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

There’s nothing quite like the lost art of the long take. A long take requires precise planning and perfect execution. It requires everyone involved to be at the height of their game and to nail the scene perfectly in one long unbroken take. 

Certainly shooting one spectacular scene or even an entire movie in a long take is nothing new, but it’s still very impressive. It still gets viewers who love the artistry of movies excited. As it should.

Movies like 2015’s “Victoria,” or 2006’s “Children of Men” or Orson Welles’ classic 1958 film “Touch of Evil” all come to mind. Even games have started imitating this visual style of one long unbroken take (“God of War” 2018). Of course, the movies that are shot entirely in one take aren’t really one long unbroken take, but they look like they are. Eagle-eyed viewers can spot the likely edit points, but that doesn’t take away from just what a difficult thing these types of movies are. 

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Undoubtedly much of Sam Mendes’ “1917” was done in long takes seamlessly edited together to look like one long take. And it’s evident that the finished product is the result of a director, cinematographer and editor working at the height of their game.

Mendes and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins used clever blocking, stage direction and camera movements to accomplish some shot reverse shots without needing to cut from one shot to another. 

For years it was seen as a crime that Deakins hadn’t won an Oscar despite a tremendous body of work and countless award nominations. In 2018, he finally won for “Blade Runner 2049,” and if he doesn’t win again here for “1917,” something is up.

“1917” is a staggering piece of filmmaking. It follows two young British soldiers tasked with delivering an urgent message across the dreaded “no man’s land” and deep into enemy territory. The message is a direct order to call off an impending attack that would see 1,600 soldiers running head-first into a trap.  

The opening scene in which Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are given their mission and head through the vast network of trenches (complete with what looks to be street signs) is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen on film in a while. It gives you a sense of just how immense the trenches of WWI were, while making me wonder if the filmmakers actually built it all. Even if not, it’s incredibly well done.

The one knock you can make about 1917 is that it doesn’t quite make character arcs for its leads. Yet 1917 is perhaps better described as a slice of life film rather than a hero’s journey, even if there are heroes going on a journey. It does a much better job of putting you into the war torn landscapes of WWI France, so you can see what life was like on the front lines. 

And yet it also isn’t about big battle sequences either. In fact it isn’t based on any particular event. Mendez dedicated the film to his grandfather, whose stories inspired it. And the journey these characters go on could have easily played out in very similar fashion any number of times during the war. Important messages being transported across deadly terrain by a carrier (or carriers) wasn’t uncommon.

As Roger Ebert famously said, “It not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” And “1917” is great because of how it is about the first World War.

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It’s strange to say that this film is visually stunning to look at, because what you’re looking at is death and devastation. Yet there are some sequences here that are some of the most visually stunning sequences I’ve seen since Deakins’ 2017 effort, “Blade Runner 2049.”

Both Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are great in understated ways. They’re not giving showy performances, but they don’t need to. 

Considering the profound effect that WWI had on the world, it’s strange that we don’t often remember it as often as WWII. Those wars shaped our modern world in such a profound way that it makes sense that they would be the subject of, or inspiration behind, many of our biggest movies, TV shows and novels. 

“1917” is as good as any war movie I’ve ever seen. I have no doubt that it’ll be remembered along with modern classics like “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Dunkirk.” 

 

 

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